Thursday, June 9, 2011

Access Awareness Day, bus stop accessibility

This is almost a double-post; the first part will talk about Access Awareness Day, after which I will segway into accessibility of bus stops.

This past Saturday, June 4 was TransLink's Access Awareness Day. Unfortunately I was unable to attend the festivities on Saturday due to a sledge hockey lesson (in which I managed to destroy part of the ice by digging a 2-cm rut into it -- oops!) but on Wednesday there was an event at Metrotown that I was able to attend.

For those who missed it, it was basically an event that focused on accessibility awareness. It was a day that provided the opportunity to able-bodied people to experience what it is like to use a public transit vehicle with a mobility aid; a scooter and a manual wheelchair were available for those who wanted to try.

So naturally, I had to drag my friend to the event to torture him a little. He was lucky that the bus on hand was a NovaBus, which has a better layout than other buses like the New Flyers. Even so, it was interesting to see how long it took him to get on and off the bus, without hitting anything. TransLink also took along an empty baby stroller to use to demonstrate real life situations -- so not hitting anything is a major key here, unless you want to end up with an injured (albeit imaginary) baby!

While it was an informative day for those with no experience using a wheelchair, I learned something new as well -- trying to navigate on board using a scooter. I had tried power wheelchairs before but never a scooter. Surprisingly, I did not hit a single thing getting on or off the bus. Skills, dudes. Skills!

After meeting some TransLink and Coast Mountain Bus Company personnel such as Jim (from transition and quality assurance) and Andrea (a training instructor from Vancouver Transit Centre), I got to meet Robert, who currently runs The Buzzer Blog. He got a long jealous stare from me, as he currently has one of my dream jobs. (Sorry, Robert!)

One thing that I wish I had joined earlier was the Access Transit committee of TransLink. Why I never joined is beyond me, but it's interesting to see who is advocating for what in our public transit system as well as what kind of improvements (and "whoopsie"s) have been made or are in the works. For those who are interested in this sort of thing, it's definitely something that's worth looking into.

One of the things that entered the discussion is the fact that while the bus fleet and TransLink-owned infrastructure have been made more accessible in recent years, there are still some nagging issues such as accessible bus stops.

Some examples of bus stop problems are narrow sidewalks (without adequate room for deploying ramps) and locations of bus stops (it may be surrounded by hazards for those with mobility impairments). There are more examples but those are the biggest ones.

Having a committee of transit riders with mobility impairments helps drastically because there are things that nobody else would think about. Here are some real-life examples I've encountered:

West 49th Avenue [eastbound] at Montgomery Street, Vancouver
The bus stop is fine. It has tons of room, it is on a manageable slope, it is clear of a lot of hazards. However, it is "stranded" -- there are no curb cuts for the sidewalk leading to the stop itself. Thus, it remains inaccessible no matter what TransLink does.

King Edward Avenue [westbound] at Marguerite Street, Vancouver
The bus stop is deemed "accessible" but a tree blocks access to the bus shelter. The other end is clear but it requires that you wheel through the dirt. (This stop may have been fixed since then.)

West Broadway [eastbound] at Macdonald Street, Vancouver
This stop is a bit of a sore spot, especially since it serves the busy 99 B-Line. It is accessible but only if the driver knows the trick to it (and as a passenger, sometimes it is necessary to tell the driver what the trick is). For it to work, the driver must line up the front door so it doesn't result in the wheelchair user either crashing into the bus shelter or the nearby tree -- there is a small gap between the two that I usually squeeze through. That gap is not too big and I'd imagine for people with larger power wheelchairs or scooters, they'd need to get off a few metres ahead of the stop.

Railway Avenue [southbound], Richmond
This one baffles me. Northbound is fine because there is a sidewalk, but there is no sidewalk or anything of the sort going southbound. This is something the City of Richmond may need to figure out, because trying to get off the bus in a wheelchair along that stretch is a bit of a thrill ride.

West 49th Avenue [both ways] at West Boulevard, Vancouver
If you are heading to this stop from the east or the north, it's no big deal. But if you're heading in from the west or the south, then it's a chore because that's the only nearby accessible stop -- and it requires you to push your way uphill. Terrain, while not a big deal to most people, can be an obstacle to those who use manual wheelchairs (such as myself) or other manual mobility aids. Basically, you will need to exert a huge amount of energy to use one bus stop even if there's another one five feet away. A lot of this has to do with the sidewalks being too narrow; hopefully there's a solution to this.

I think I'm done ranting. Those are only several examples I've seen. Notice how none of these are rural examples but rather urban and suburban ones. I think when people start to look carefully at these little things, Vancouver can be made even more accessible than it is right now; this city has made huge strides but its job is far from being done and nobody should feel completely satisfied at the present situation just yet.

It's very likely that I'm going to look into getting involved with the Access Transit committee; let's see if we can get the ball rolling on making the system welcoming for everyone.

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